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With COVID-19 Waning, Cuomo Retains Emergency Powers

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Darren McGee
Office of N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo
N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that most COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have ended in New York — but he didn't discontinue the emergency powers he’s held since March 2020, and that has state Republican leaders fuming.

There are signs that the state and much of the nation are finally entering a post-pandemic period. Cuomo, along with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, eased most COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday and said people who are fully vaccinated can now go about their lives like they used to.

“This is a momentous day,” Cuomo told an audience of union leaders and other supporters at a speech at the World Trade Center. “It has been a long, long road.”

The governor set off fireworks displays in cities around the state to celebrate.

Not everyone can immediately go back to normal. Unvaccinated New Yorkers — currently about 50% of the state’s population when children are included — still need to wear masks in public and practice safe social distancing.

There are signs that the state’s economy is also recovering. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found sales tax revenues totaled $1.4 billion in May, a 57.8% increase from May 2020, when the state was in lockdown. Spending was also up 6.9% from May 2019, before the pandemic.

Although many small businesses and restaurants say they are struggling to hire enough workers to fully reopen, most are resuming normal business hours and no longer require masks or social distancing.

Despite the signs of life returning to normal, the governor has not yet declared the state of emergency to be over. In March 2020, the New York state Legislature granted him special emergency powers, allowing him to issue over 400 executive orders that included business closures, mandatory mask wearing and restricting how many people could gather inside a private home.

Earlier this spring, Democrats, who lead the Legislature, voted to curb some of those powers after the governor became embroiled in a number of scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment and a federal investigation into whether he covered up the true number of nursing home deaths from COVID-19. The Senate and Assembly passed a bill that prevented the governor from issuing any new executive orders without their approval.

“This majority has decided that power is no longer necessary,” Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris said on March 5. “It wasn’t executed the way any of us would have liked, and we’re going to repeal it.”

Republicans, the minority in the Legislature, said that measure was not enough. They said a lot has changed in three months, and that the Democratic lawmakers should have fully revoked the emergency powers before adjourning on June 10. More than 60 of the directives remain in place.

State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy held a news conference Thursday outside the Capitol.

“He can’t cancel every restriction and then still hold on to this power,” Langworthy said. “That’s just not fair.”

Langworthy also criticized Cuomo’s celebration on Tuesday in light of the over 40,000 New Yorkers who died of COVID-19, including 15,000 at nursing homes and other adult long-term care facilities. Langworthy said those deaths, and the grieving friends and relatives, were not acknowledged.

He also said it’s inappropriate for Cuomo to hold a victory rally when he is facing several scandals, including whether he improperly used staff to help him write a memoir for which he was paid $5 million.

“He's celebrating with fireworks. If that doesn't make your skin crawl, I don't know what you are made of,” Langworthy said. “Andrew Cuomo is a Machiavellian, and he's as calculating as they come. Putin must be watching this and taking notes right now.”

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi called Langworthy’s statements “garbage,” and said the Republican chair is deliberately misconstruing the meaning of the celebration.

“The tens of thousands of cheering New Yorkers on Tuesday fully understood this was about celebrating the essential workers and turning the page on this pandemic,” Azzopardi said. “Once again, Langworthy and the New York chapter of Trump’s pom pom squad are seeking to divide and politicize for their own craven ends.”

Though the Legislature formally adjourned for the year, they may return to the Capitol in July to act on the governor’s nominees to the MTA and other matters. They will have another opportunity then, if they choose, to alter the governor’s emergency powers.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.